That evening, my parents had a fight. It had been a particularly nasty fight about things I did not understand. We were having supper when the shouting began. Then Mom ran off in tears and Dad finished eating with us in silence. My little sisters were crying too.
On nights like those, it was Dad who put us to bed. Mom locked herself into her bedroom not wanting to see anyone, or not wanting anyone to see her. Dad kissed and blessed us. After he switched off the light, I lay awake for a long time worrying that my parents would get divorced. I heard some more shouting, followed by silence. Then the only sounds came from outside — crickets and an occasional catfight — and to those familiar noises I drifted off.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when Dad pulled me out of bed, but it was still the middle of the night. I felt dozy and confused. There was a strange crackle outside and I thought it might be rain on our corrugated iron roof. But Dad shouted: “For God’s sake, Ben, don’t just stand there! They’re shooting — get out of here!”
He pushed me into the corridor where I found Mom and my sisters already huddled up. Dad pulled the mattresses off the single beds and lined them up in the hallway: one for my parents, one for my sisters to share, and one for me. This was the safest place in the house to be. It would be hard for stray bullets to reach us here.
We lay in silence, listening to the gunfire and the occasional explosion of a hand grenade. It was like fireworks stripped of their beauty: only the scary sound was left. Where was it coming from? Who was shooting at whom? Was it getting closer, or was that my imagination?
The phone rang, cutting sharp through the night. I worried people outside would hear. Dad rushed to pick up and then spoke in a hushed voice — something about the rebels having launched an attack.
We had been told about the rebels at school. The headmaster came into our classroom and said school would be shut until further notice. My sisters and I were very excited. But then the days dragged on and we missed our friends. We kept waiting but we did not know what for. And suddenly the rebels were here.
Mom came and lay next to me. She cuddled and kissed me, and said everything would be alright. After some time, I got used to the gunfire. It became just background noise. A single hurricane lamp lit the corridor, the cotton wick turned low so as not to give ourselves away. It was a bit like camping. I swaddled myself in my blanket where I felt safe. I imagined we were in a movie and, in a movie, the goodies always win.
I drifted in and out of sleep. Every now and then, I woke to the sound of gunfire and in those moments I checked on Mom and Dad. Soft whispers had replaced the shouting of the previous night. Mom seemed worried and Dad tried to comfort her. I was glad they were no longer fighting. Maybe they wouldn’t get divorced after all?
From time to time, Dad crawled towards a window to see what was going on. Once, I followed him. When he discovered me, I knew he wanted to yell but couldn’t. Instead, he frowned so hard I nearly cried. I think he felt sorry, because he put his arm around me and guided me to peek behind the curtain.
The sky looked like it was filled with supersonic fireflies. Maybe they were fireworks after all? Dad said that they were tracer bullets — they allowed the shooters to adjust their aim. I was mesmerised. There was magic about this night.
Towards morning, the shooting stopped and there was an eerie silence — like the world was holding its breath. I wondered whether the war was over and whether we might go back to school.
My sisters were asleep and, from under the blanket, I spied on my parents. The hurricane lamp was out now, but I could make out their shapes in the dark, granular light of dawn. They lay on their sides facing each other and Dad had his hand on Mom’s cheek. They were looking at each other and their faces met in a kiss. I was almost certain then they would not get divorced.
Brecht De Poortere was born in Belgium and grew up in Africa. He now lives in Paris, France.
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